United Nations

Is it a potential World Government or only a tool of the Great Powers?






The ancestor of the UN is the concept of the Concert of Europe, formulated in the 19th century after the Napoleonic wars. The idea was that the Great Powers would work together by meeting together. The peace of Europe was largely maintained from 1814 until 1870 - at least between France, Britain and Germany.

Following the first world war President Woodrow Wilson proposed a League of Nations to extend the principle of Concert (working together) to the whole planet. However, the League failed to deal with the rise of the extreme nationalist states: Germany, Italy and Japan, and failed to prevent the wars associated with their rise.

Following the second world war, in which the allies called themselves the "United Nations", it was agreed to form a world organization to replace the League of Nations.

The statesmen of 1944, F.D.Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, said they wanted a forum to discuss world problems and provide collective military and other response to threatened wars. They set up a two tier structure for world meetings: The General Assembly in which every state, however small, had one vote; the Security Council which was limited to the Great Powers and representatives of the other powers by rotation.

The Permanent Members of the Security Council had a Veto, the power to prevent formal agreement. This represents a realistic desire to avoid empty resolutions and a recognition of the fact that the large powers cannot be compelled to act against their wishes.

Permanent members in 1945 were: United States, Soviet Union, Britain, France, China.

If they were supposed to be the undisputed World Powers this list is due for revision, as Germany and Japan might qualify while Britain and France no longer have world power, after losing their colonies. A suggestion has been made of giving one seat to Japan and the other to the European Union, which might allocate it to the rotating European presidency. The United States has proposed that Germany and Japan be given Permanent status, but if Britain and France retain their seats there will be strong demands from such countries as India and Indonesia for permanent status too. The Security Council might then become too large to make effective decisions. These changes are being reflected in the G20, a less formal grouping in chich India and China are represented, along with other powers such as Brazil.

Cold War
During the Cold War every decision reflected the opposition between the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union. Attempts were made to persuade uncommitted countries to vote on one or other side (by bribes and threats). Collective action was vetoed in the Security Council. (The one exception was the Korean war when the resolution was passed while the Soviet Union was boycotting proceedings. Stalin and his successors never made that mistake again.)

Following the end of the Cold War collective action has become more frequent.

UN forces are now located in Kuwait, Iraq, Cyprus, Somalia, the Balkans, Lebanon, Congo, Bosnia. The Gulf War of 1991 was in name a UN war.

The 2003 conflict between the US and Iraq threatens to destroy the diplomatic functions of the UN. The US government (G W Bush) made it clear that they intended to fight this war whether the UN Security Council voted for it or not. Both Britain and the US threatened to ignore a veto in the Security Council by other great powers, including Russia, France and China. This act undermined the framework of International Law laid down at the end of the second world war. It may indicate that the UN system cannot contain a power such as the US which is at present the only serious military power on the planet. Will the UN be replaced by American imperial power? (Probably not as the US is in reality getting weaker).

Can the UN act as an efficient world body? It is suspected that several of its specialized bodies are self-perpetuating bureaucracies which exist to serve the various civil servants and politicians who staff them.

The administration consists of:

Secretariat at the New York HQ to run the General Assembly and Security Council

Economic Commissions for Africa, Europe, Latin America and Caribbean, Asia and Pacific, Western Asia.

UN Center for Human Settlements

UNCTAD Conference on Trade and Development

UNEP Environment Program

World Court

World Food Council

Specialized Agencies

many were taken over from the League of Nations

FAO Food and Agriculture Organization

IAEA International Atomic Energy Agency

(Is it poacher or gamekeeper?)

ICAO International Civil Aviation Org.

ILO International Labor Org.

IMO International Maritime Org.

ITU Telecommunications

UNESCO UN Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organisation.

(US and UK boycotted it for a number of years because of alleged bias against freedom of the press)

UPU Universal! Postal Union (dates back to before the League of Nations)

WHO World Health Org. One of the most effective (elimination of smallpox)

WIPO World Intellectual Property Org. (copyright)

WMO World Meteorological Org.

UNDP UN Development Program

UNFPA Fund for Population Activities

UNHCR UN High Commission for Refugees

UNICEF UN Children's fund (originally International Children's Emergency Fund, but the emergency has lasted for 48 years already)

UNIDO UN Industrial Development Org.

UNITAR UN Institute for Training & Research

UNRWA UN Relief and Works Agency (Palestinian refugees)

UNU University

WFP World Food Program

Non-UN Bodies

Interpol Police cooperation

World Bank (International Bank for Reconstruction and Development

IMF International Monetary Fund

(The money is controlled by those with most of it, the western powers, and voting is strictly ad valorem, as in a joint stock corporation)


Switzerland has voted to join (March 2002)



Taiwan (officially part of China)



Vatican (The HQ of a rival world body)



Possible Solutions

Does the UN represent the world as a whole? In the Kuwait war the military action was taken as a result of UN resolutions. However, these were passed at the request of the United States and Britain. Did the rest of the world do more than assent?

Some critics observe that the Security Council and General Assembly have both passed resolutions on Israel and Palestine. No collective action, other than an observer force, has resulted. The assumption is that the Great Powers will act only when their own interests are affected (such as oil supplies in Kuwait). This loses the support of all Muslim powers who tend to see the UN as something got up by the former colonial powers, still controlling it.

The funds are provided according to National Income. Thus the US is supposed to pay 25%, Japan 12.5%, Russia 9.4%. There is no power on earth to prevent the payers from calling the tune. In addition the US (as well as some others) is in arrears with its payments which keeps the UN short of funds. Of course there is a reason for this: Uncle Sam is not short of the readies. One proposal is an independent source of funds such as a small tax on currency transactions, or rent on the seabed.

Therefore when the General Assembly passes a resolution nothing will happen if a majority only of low payers vote for it. During the Cold War the US and the USSR could withhold aid if the small powers voted the wrong way. As recently as 1990 Yemen lost its US aid when it voted the wrong way in the Security Council over Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. There are said to be similar pressures in 2003 on the smaller, non-permanent members of the Security Council over the proposed war with Iraq.

Probably only the SF writers' invasion from outer space could turn the UN into a planetary government.

Its activities in Cambodia, Bosnia and Somalia do not inspire confidence.

Actual world policy decisions seem to be being made these days by the more informal meetings of the G20 group of heads of government (formerly the G7).

Last revised 18/08/09


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